Saying Goodbye to AHC Friend Hugh Downs

Radio and television broadcaster, announcer, television host, news anchor, TV producer, author, game show host, music composer, and AHC friend Hugh Downs died at his home in Scottsdale on July 1, 2020. He was 99.

Hugh was one of the few television personalities who remembered the medium’s earliest days in the 1950s. By that time, he was already a radio veteran. His smooth baritone voice was heard on TV shows like Kukla, Fran and Ollie, Sid Caesar’s Caesar’s Hour and, most notably, The Tonight Show where he was Jack Paar’s co-host. During those years he was also host of the popular daytime game show Concentration, a job he held from 1958 until 1969.

Although it meant double duty, he could not pass up the opportunity in 1962 to host NBC’s Today Show, which he performed ably until 1971. It was his most high-profile and prestigious assignment to date, one that established him as not only an announcer but a respected journalist. He then went on from 1975 to 1976 to co-host Not for Women Only with a young Barbara Walters, whose career he championed.

Hugh Downs standing next to an NBC TV van, ca. 1962.
A young Hugh Downs on the job as NBC Today Show anchor, ca. 1962. Box 196, Hugh Downs papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

Later, while hosting Over Easy, a PBS TV program about aging that aired from 1977 to 1983, he earned a postgraduate degree in gerontology from Hunter College.

He became most known in later years as the Emmy Award-winning co-anchor, again paired with Barbara Walters, of the ABC TV show 20/20, a prime time news magazine program, from the show’s second episode in 1978 until his retirement in 1999.

His strong work ethic may have come from his childhood when his father Milton, a Lima, Ohio, machinist and battery salesman, lost work during the Depression, forcing Hugh to drop out of college after his first year to help support his family. He was hired as an announcer at WLOK, a radio station located not far from the family farm, for $12.50 a week. Within a year he was promoted to program director at twice the salary. He then moved on to Chicago where he joined the NBC radio network at WMAQ as an announcer, where he stayed until 1954.

He married Ruth Shaheen in 1944 during World War II, a time that saw her decorated by Naval Intelligence for her work on an undercover assignment. She graduated from college, moved to Chicago, and became a radio actress, as well as a director and producer. One of her employees was young Hugh Downs. The two fell in love and married, a union that lasted 75 years until her death in 2017. Their children are Deirdre and H.R.

Son H.R., Hugh, daughter Deirdre, and wife Ruth cutting a rug in the family’s living room, ca. 1960. Hugh was a talented musician and a published composer. Box 195, Hugh Downs papers, American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming.

In an AHC introductory video Hugh narrated in 1993, he explained why he donated his papers to the Center:

Several years ago, I was asked to place my letters, photographs, manuscripts at the American Heritage Center. My staff said, ‘Well, you ought to look at some other archives. There are a lot of them and leave your papers with the best one.’ Well, I said, ‘Research it.’ And they did and they came back to me and said that first one was the best choice—the American Heritage Center. That’s where my collection is placed.

In the same video, he noted that he kept track of the AHC. And, indeed he did. He served on the AHC’s Board of Advisors from 2008 to 2010 during a time of great growth of the Center marked by the establishment of upgraded acquisition policies and a resurgence in public programming.

Hugh Downs was kind enough to narrate an overview video of the American Heritage Center in 1993.

His papers give an excellent overview of all aspects of the public life he led. There are extensive general correspondence files, files about his public appearances, and photographs and audiovisual materials that document his multi-faceted career.

The American Heritage Center has been fortunate to call Hugh not only a donor of materials related to his legendary career, but also a good and gracious friend. Rest in peace, dear friend.

Post submitted by the AHC’s Simpson Archivist Leslie Waggener.


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2 Responses to Saying Goodbye to AHC Friend Hugh Downs

  1. Dan Nelson says:

    Thanks for your post on Hugh Downs. He and his career were part of my upbringing.

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